Lit

Review: Happy Campers Are All Alike

Journalists love looking for America, and Dave Hoekstra—WGN radio host and author of The Camper Book: A Celebration of a Moveable American Dream—is as smitten as the rest.

For the past two years the news scribblers have provided a ceaseless stream of diner and front-porch monologues from the common clay of the West, Midwest, and Rust Belt—mostly about, oh, let’s just say “current events.” Hoekstra does likewise in The Camper Book, though he did it from behind the wheel of his customized blue van and went further than other journos—distance-wise, at least. He didn’t find America, but he located several pleasant places to park and chat with folks about RV thug life.

Determining what The Camper Book wants to be though is a challenge. I kept thinking about what it wasn’t. Bittersweet, picaresque cross-country journeys are an American cultural mainstay—On the Road, Easy Rider, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” spring to mind. The Camper Book isn’t kin to these, though it draws much inspiration from John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. Unlike the aforementioned works, however, there’s little myth or mud on these wheels.

A few sections excel. One chapter shows Hoekstra paying homage at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA. He gained a rare glimpse of the interior of Steinbeck’s Rocinante—a Frankencamper that’s part 1960 GMC truck and part camper-shell—in which the author made his Travels with Charley tour. Hoekstra insists he’s not trying to mimic Steinbeck (he doesn’t even have a poodle, for goodness sake), but that’s a shade disingenuous. He talks to folks about their lives and opinions, much like Steinbeck, and his camper is equipped with a writing nook similar to Rocinante’s—though he confesses to not jotting a lick there. Come on, Dave, fess up. Your van is literary cosplay. No shame in it. Who among us hasn’t secretly dabbled in modernism?

Other parts are frustratingly spare or uneven, especially regarding camper history. Early on, Hoekstra mentions Elkhart, IN, the supposed camper capital. But the chapter swiftly turns into an account of how an Elkhart-based company “tricked out” his van. Later, he grants a few paragraphs to the Dunites, crunchy ur-hippie artists who camped the Pismo Beach dunes in the 1930s. Their story has little to do with RV culture, but I was still intrigued…until Hoekstra began talking about some English sailor named Price selling downtown Pismo Beach to speculators in the 1880s…before describing his glee at driving his van across the beach’s white sands—which is a…tradition, I suppose? Weird factoids are dropped but lightly pursued. As a curator of kooks, I wanted to learn more about Wisconsin industrialist Elmer Frey, and his unrealized bizarre vision of high-rise mobile home parks. Whence cometh camper culture? Or is it Kulturcamp? It’s hard to tell in The Camper Book. I was left to assume mobile homes sprang full-fledged from the brow of Lord Winnebago, God of RVs.

“Whither goest camper culture?” is somewhat clearer. Not a history, The Camper Book isn’t a travelogue either. Hoekstra describes camp sites and trailer parks across these United States where he pulled in, set up, and chatted with inhabitants. We rarely “see” him traveling, however. In each chapter he is hours arrived at the parks, already breaking bread with his new neighbors. Yet only slight mention is made of what he did or encountered between Point A and Point B. Perhaps he had a wormhole generator installed during the van’s conversion.

Halfway through I think I figured it out. Not a history, nor a travelogue, The Camper Book’s main purpose is to be a conversation time capsule. Something underlined by a back cover blurb that calls Hoekstra a “modern-day Studs Terkel.”

Uh. Oh boy. Those are some big red socks to fill.

I don’t think Hoekstra sees himself as Studs 2.0. Certainly, he avoids Terkel’s political edge. An admitted “lifelong Democrat”, he is often puzzled by those who are not. Most of his interviews were conducted in the wake of the 2016 election, and as Hoekstra wrestles with politics antithetical to his own, the reader may be forgiven to think, “Oh, Dave, poor lamb. If you only knew…” His spiritual godfather remains Steinbeck, who spent Travels with Charley chatting with fellow Americans about everything from the Kennedy/Nixon election to nuclear holocaust. Hoekstra gathers an extended panel of ex-military types, retirees, traveling contractors, country singers, nurses, ministers, tourists from faraway, and others, skimming their brainpans about their lives, the RV lifestyle, and tangerine-shaded politicians—but not too deeply. Reasons for hitting the road are diverse. A few subjects are modern-day Joads, going where the jobs are with the benefit of not being homeless per se. A few found Christ—unsurprising that camper folks would follow a peripatetic Messiah. I’d ask them what RV would Jesus drive (WRVWJD). A modest travel trailer hitched to the donkey he rode into Jerusalem, or a fleet of Airstream Classics with enough room for Pete and the boys on the next fishing trip? But Hoekstra lets his subjects talk with little comment. One family explains they’re a ministry of “family restoration”, telling him they homeschool (road-school?) their kids, with mom opaquely explaining “We just wanted to know what families should really look like.” After sharing their “vision for a web-driven ministry where people can interact with [their family] and… [that] would have family resources for them”, Hoekstra says they “should visit Chicago. Or New Orleans. Or New York City.” without clarification or exploring what “family restoration” means. The man seems civilly incurious.

As a side note, stylistically, Hoekstra is pretty solid, but lapses into odd turns of phrase, cornpone, and observations that practically evaporate as you read them:

“Marina City got a lot of attention for revitalizing downtown Chicago in the mid-1960s, and indeed Trump Tower is now just a block away.”

I beg your pardon?

Or:

“Walmarts are big stores.”

Do tell?

Or:

“Camping is zooming into mainstream culture.”

I see what you did there.

For a kitschy subject, I suppose it’s an appropriate tone, but it became distracting.

In 2010, author Bill Steigerwald called boo on Travels with Charley. He retraced the author’s path and discovered inconsistencies in times and places, and that Steinbeck mostly roughed it in cozy hotels. Not very punk rock, Mr. Of Mice and Men. Very likely, Steinbeck manufactured conversations in the book. A good call, aesthetically speaking. Most real dialogues lack drama, and by that I mean they are excruciatingly  boring. It’s clear Hoekstra hasn’t faked the chitchat in The Camper Book. He captures all the spontaneity and aimlessness of conversation with strangers. Yet it all…sounds…so…familiar by now. Nice folks, but we’ve heard it a thousand times over a thousand news cycles. You don’t have to drive 2,000 miles to hear authentic frontier gibberish anymore. Blame Twitter.

Several yarns in The Camper Book are worth a damn. Several damns, I say. Hoekstra shines at profiling site owners—quixotic, eccentric-as-hell souls who share tidbits about the rewards, and/or lack thereof, of running RV parks and campsites. The Chicago Elvis fan operating just outside Graceland. The artist who assembled a emerald Easter Island moai, giant metal ants, and other sculptures to spruce up his park in Kingman, AZ. Magnetic Valley Retreat of Eureka Springs, AR, catering to a gay male clientele beneath the stony eyes of a humongous Christ statue. And Cassius Cash, the first African-American superintendent of Great Smokey Mountain National Park, with whom he discusses the dearth of people of color in camper culture (though groups like the National African-American RV’ers Association Inc. (NAARVA) signal a wind shift). More of that, please, and fewer folks grumbling about “animal rights people” over their barbecue.

Upon consideration, The Camper Book is Hoekstra’s personal scrapbook, filled with tips, notes, lists, ponderings, recipes, song lyrics, and itemized breakdowns of the cost of RV addiction. The lifestyle ain’t cheap. An extended section on Cubs manager Joe Maddon and his RV collecting provides insight on well-heeled wheeled living. His latest purchase is a Winnebago Grand Tour. A $446,800 beast with “an electric fireplace, curved sofa, master bedroom, master bathroom, heated tile floors throughout, and five television sets.” On the other hand…

No. I mean, good lord. An electric fireplace. Heated tiles. On wheels.

I report with confidence that the rich remain different from you and me.

Beside Maddon, we meet a raft of Hoekstra’s sixty-something pals and personal heroes. Songwriter John Prine—who is not deceased folkie/Cubs song composer Steve Goodman, though I keep confusing the two—loves the trailer life. He talks about the “rig” he bought in 2016, and the trips he and his family have made in it. We also get a breakdown of Prine’s “Lake Marie” because Hoekstra really, really likes that song. Hoekstra crony Tony Fitzpatrick makes an appearance, having rendered the colorful bird paintings adorning the van’s exterior. Why birds? Well, and I’ve been putting off mentioning this, Hoekstra calls his van Bluebird. It’s a tribute to a pair of ceramic avian tchotchkes his grandma left him, now fixed in place beside the van’s writing table. He frequently refers to Bluebird by name, perhaps hoping it’ll take its place in cultural history beside Rocinante, Easy Rider’s chopper Captain America, or…Herbie, the Love Bug, I guess. His other name choices included Make America Blue Again, VanTastic, and Van Go.

Dad. Stop. Please.

“Bluebird”

Final question: who is The Camper Book for? I think it’s intended as a slim gift book for the parent about to travel by RV, or who always talked about but never got around to doing so. Nostalgic Boomers who once sat resentful in the back seat of the family Studebaker, staring at Dad’s tonsure while soaring down Route 66 in search of not America, but cheeseburgers, cement dinosaurs, state magnets, and a glimpse of Mount Rushmore. Said Boomer yearns for that simple wayfaring life. Fanning the internal spark of hippie-dippie spirit still resting in their souls, even after all those corporate mercenary years. Fanning it hard enough to start a wildfire that burns through their disposable income before the damn millennials get their hands on it.

Oh wait, millennials have money now. Not as much, but maybe enough to pick up a folding trailer? By God, we can’t allow them to add RVs—alongside cereal, napkins, golf, diamonds, and starter houses—to their list of economic victims. Stop them before they kill conspicuous consumption again.

A couple of sidebars and the book’s final chapter suggest RV’ing is something those millennial kids (who are in their thirties now) might/could be getting into. That seems tenuous. If millennials shouldn’t be buying avocado toast, should they be dropping dough on a motor coach before purchasing their first home? Oh, I’ve seen the hipsters online—always in search of bourgeoise folkways to punk rockify, the way they did cupcakes, knitting, and mustache wax—talking about hitting the road, but I don’t see #vanlife trending anytime soon. Hoekstra, who appears comfortable enough to make purchases beyond most millennials’ conception doesn’t seem to grasp that. He kindly offers a breakdown of camper benefits for the less flush, so I think his intentions are good if muddled.

Ultimately, The Camper Book is whatever you call train-spotting for camper fans (maybe it’s glampers, but I refuse to use that word on moral grounds). Hoekstra calls it “a celebration.” I call it a zeitgeist melange. It resonates with nostalgia for the kitsch-ridden vacation experience of the 50s and 60s and exploration of the Old Square America. A book for gear-goggling white men of a certain age.

I’m being snarky, yes, but did I dislike The Camper Book? No. But I wanted a bit more than a survey, small talk, and a sales pitch for potential wanderers. Clean and safe is a quality I look for in rest area bathrooms, not travel writing. Like Hoekstra, like Steinbeck, like Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, I, too sing America, also and as well as those guys.

I am a devotee of hobo memoirs, hiker diaries, and pioneer narratives, and I understand the pleasantries and painfulness of road trips firsthand. I have traveled these contiguous states by car and train—smiling at the good and frowning at the bad. I’ve trod most every spot where Abe Lincoln debated, rail-split, or laid his tremendous hat. I’ve visited the birth-, life-, and death-places of poets, presidents, musicians, cartoonists, architects, crackpots, tyrants, and goons. I’ve rolled through bison herds in the Black Hills; scaled San Francisco’s inclined and angled streets; marched Boston’s Freedom Trail from Cotton Mather’s to Mother Goose’s grave; and dipped all 10 toes off each coast and into a few Great Lakes besides. In America there is beauty, kindness, and glory. In America there is horror, rot, and fear. Crumbling factories cancerous with rust; tiny prairie school cathedral banks that’ll strike you dumb; old town squares syphilitic with neglect or getting a fresh shot of botox and a tummy tuck; and some of the dreamiest dishes and plates of greased hell to which I’ve ever subjected my stomach and taste buds. America: place of dead roads, blood fields, and hallowed grounds, ready at any moment to turn into a shining palace or a charred whorehouse. And the faces! Oh my, the faces. From beaming beautiful cornfed angels to meth-scarred and alcohol-etched beasts—human punctuation marks at the beginning and end of every highway and railroad line of the American story. Amerikkka…’Murika…AMERICA, MAN!

I’m guessing Hoekstra saw the same people, places, and things. I would have liked to hear more about them and less about difficulty backing into spaces, the importance of shower houses, and so much familiar chitchat. Maybe in the sequel.

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1 reply »

  1. Fully enjoyed this review to the distant end. I’m sure it’s more entertaining/illuminating than ‘The Camping Book.’ Appreciate the mention of my 2010 expose of John Steinbeck’s book of fictions and lies, aka Travels With Charley.’ (It sounds like the author of ‘The ‘Camping’ Book’ did about as much actual camping under the stars as Steinbeck didn’t.) My 2013 travel book ‘Dogging Steinbeck,’ which Steinbeck scholars/fans didn’t appreciate and still pretend doesn’t exist, tells of my adventures in university libraries from Stanford to Princeton and on 11,276 miles of mostly two-lane American highways. I didn’t camp. But I slept in my car twenty nights along the Connecticut River, Route 66 and ten Walmart parking lots. Nor did I have to make up a fact or embellish a conversation with one of the hundreds of good people I met. It’s why I called my book a new genre, ‘True Nonfiction.’ Everyone in Illinois should buy it on Amazon today.

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